Gugu Mbatha-Raw has starred in some of the most acclaimed and talked about movies in recent years.
The English actress, who studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, has been in films such as Beyond the Lights and Belle, thrilling audiences with her versatility and ability to portray different aspects of the human experience.
From the theater stage to the big screen, Gugu’s been busy taking on roles that prove she’s one of the major emerging talents in the dramatic field. Her next gig? The lead role in the movie adaptation of writer Roxane Gay‘s debut novel An Untamed State, which will see her team up once again with Lights director Gina Prynce-Bythewood.
Recently, Gugu took on the role of Prema Mutiso in the box office hit Concussion [available on DVD, Blu-ray and next-generation 4K Ultra HD], the strong and supportive wife of Dr. Bennet Omalu, played by Will Smith. Dr. Omalu, a Nigerian-American neuropathologist, became the first physician to discover and publish findings related to concussions in American football players, causing a major controversy both in the field of science and in the NFL.
We took a moment to speak with Gugu about her character, the importance of Dr. Omalu’s work and why real life heroes deserve a moment to shine in history.
Why you think the story of Dr. Bennet Omalu and his work is important? What makes it timely?
To me, the fact that it’s based on real events and is a true story is incredible. It has a very “David and Goliath” feel to it. The fact that one man takes on this system against tremendous odds in order to tell the truth is incredible. It’s about American football, the sport of the country, and about how Dr. Bennet’s work exposed some of the behind the scenes of the industry. That was an inspiring message to me: him fighting for what’s right in spite of those that didn’t want the truth to come out. I think it’s timely because it’s an important conversation to be having; America’s beloved sport and the fact people should be educated in the reality on what happens behind the scenes in it.
What drew you to your character?
As far as the movie in general, almost every day I read new information and studies about the NFL and what they know/knew about concussions, and what’s going to come from that knowledge. Knowing that’s based largely on Dr. Bennet’s work is amazing to me. As far as my character, Prema (Dr. Bennet’s wife), she’s the core of strength and the fact that she’s quietly strong is what drew me to her. She’s been through a lot in her life. She was an immigrant to America; I think coming as an immigrant to any country brings a sense of resilience and that drew me to her. Also her sense of dignity. She kept her faith and spirit throughout the whole thing. She’s the emotional and spiritual center of the film. From her miscarriage to the family to being there for Bennett and keeping him inspired on the path to the truth—I really responded to her in that way.
What was it like working on a film that was rooted in historically controversial events?
There’s something about telling the tale of real people through acting that is special. Learning about Dr. Bennet and his work and how it affected his life professionally and personally was so inspiring to me. He did a lot of important work, and the film does a great job of capturing it. I think the impact is far reaching beyond its initial release. It’s going to spark conversations about concussions and their severity, and I think that’s important.
Are roles such Prema Mutiso, a character you don’t need to bring to life but accurately portray, challenging to play? What draws you to the challenge?
I wouldn’t say I’m always drawn to real stories (like in Belle too) though there is something about people who really existed that make you think, “Wow, their stories deserve to be told.” I think that’s the wonderful thing about film: those unsung heroes in history deserve to have their story told. I think Dr. Bennet is doing something of substance and deserved to have the spotlight for the moment. As a culture, we tend to praise the same celebrities for doing regular things, but, I think ordinary people doing extraordinary things deserve to be celebrities. Some of these stories you can’t believe they’re real, and that makes for the best film sometimes.
What do you think will surprise people the most about this film?
Will gives a phenomenal performance, he really transforms. People who know him from his other roles may be surprised that he brings such dramatic intensity to the film. The chance to work with Will was wonderful and fun, and I knew I would learn a lot from working with him. It’s also very much an emotional journey, though there are some comedic and lighthearted moments that tie it all together. It’s definitely an experience.